Saturday, April 03, 2010


Kick-Ass the movie is getting some pretty strong heat media wise, to the point that the actual comic seems like a foot note. Thanks to the movie being optioned and produced before the series was even complete, it's easy to feel like the source material is superfluous at this point, and that's increasingly how I was feeling before reading the comic. After reading it, I found a strange, flawed, but deeply personal story. But, what does it mean to have a personal story when the guy who wrote it is kind of a delusional egomaniac?

First off, I'll say that Kick-Ass generally works. It's a fairly strong character based story, but one that at no time is as radical or innovative as Millar seems to think it is. Alan Moore cracked on Geoff Johns quite a bit for retreading his ideas with Blackest Night, but this series really feels like a retread of those late 80s grim and gritty superhero comics that Moore and Miller did, quite literally in this case imagining what it would be like for a superhero in the real world. Of course, that reality lasts for about an issue, by the end, after several superhero team ups, we're firmly in an elevated genre world. I think that undermines the series' basic conceit, but I think it functions in an interesting way as Millar exploring his own fame and success, to suddenly find himself not being a pretender to star status, but actually being a star.

Reading the series in this way requires an understanding of the extratextual Mark Millar persona, something that's been of particular interest to me in the context of working on the Grant Morrison doc. I don't know Millar and have never met him, but I have this picture of him through the people we've talked to that paints him as an ambitious fame hungry guy who got a taste of success and star power in the early 00s and has been rolling to bigger and bigger things ever since. I think his writing has suffered for this, Civil War was terrible, and his Fantastic Four wasn't great compared to the iconic work he did on The Authority and The Ultimates.

The weaker works suffered from feeling a bit generic, his authorial voice was subsumed to the general needs of the Marvel universe in a way they never were on The Ultimates. I didn't want to read about the Marvel U version of Iron Man or Captain America after reading about the Ultimate versions. To me, those are the definitive takes on those characters, and it's telling that the films have drawn so heavily on Millar's work. The Ultimates is a really strong distillation of everything that works about the Avengers concept, and it has interesting things to say about fame and media culture, which is the unifying theme that ties together most of Millar's signature works.

The Authority is the first riff on that, the superhero as rock star, and The Ultimates escalates it to the superhero as tabloid fixture, as modern celebrity. But, both those works are written solely from the perspective of cool insiders, it may be an aspirational text, but there is no reader surrogate. It's key to note that all The Authority and Ultimates characters are sexy, powerful and famous beyond their costumes, they don't have to work to win peoples' admiration, it's inherent to their image.

Kick-Ass flips the perspective on this, showing a character who's spent his life admiring those kind of characters (and in some cases those exact characters to enhance the “reality” of the book), and decides that the best way to become famous and beloved is to become a superhero. For Millar, being a superhero isn't about being a symbol of humanity's best potential as a species (as it is for Morrison), it's about gaining fame, power and notoriety. There's this fixation on MySpace friends and critical heat throughout, and when Dave hangs up the mask early in the book, what brings him out of retirement is not the need to do good, but the desire to one up Red Mist and get his headlines back.

So, the whole thing becomes this strange petty quest of one self-perceived loser to gain social capital in the form of fame. He may pursue a relationship with Katie, but the love that he really wants is not a meaningful emotional connection with one person, it's the dilute adoration of the masses. Either way, he's never able to put his true self out there, either to the public or Katie, it's like he doesn't have the self confidence to let his true self be loved, he needs to hide behind a facade.

The whole pretending to be gay subplot may seem like Millar's excuse to make a bunch of gay jokes, but it seems to be key to the work in many ways. In Kick-Ass, Dave sees the way that a mask makes it easier to do things he never could as himself. The gay persona is another mask, and as the work goes on, we see less and less of the real “Dave,” he fades into this progression of false identities, playing a part to satisfy a particular audience who needs to see him in a particular way.

This has great resonance with the idea of fame itself. The person who becomes famous or beloved by the masses isn't a real person, it's a construct built by PR people and the media to be an accessible, relatable presence for people. Incidents like the Tiger Woods troubles are interesting because of the disparity between the 'real' person and the self that he presented to the world.

Dave's status as a fanboy is emphasized throughout, and the whole work often quite literally deals with the idea of the superhero as adolescent male power fantasy. Only this time, Dave is taking the very thing that makes him a social exile, his comics habit and nerdiness, and is turning it into an asset, showing up the people who socially ostracized him by becoming something cooler and more loved than them, Kick-Ass.

And, you can easily equate the idea of a 'real' superhero jumping off the comics page with Millar's own comics being turned into movies. What was once this niche hobby relegated to dingy shops is now front page news, and comics like Wanted or Kick-Ass are household names. Millar himself is a media figure, and he feels like he's blazing the trail of taking these books to larger and larger audiences.

So, it's appropriate that Kick-Ass is turned into a movie right off the comics page since it's taking the Kick-Ass idea and realizing it into a star studded big budget movie. Even within the comic, there's meta resonance that Big Daddy, the seemingly ultra cool impeccable assassin, the biggest 'star' in the universe, is funding his missions by selling old back issues of superhero comics. This comes mere months after Nic Cage, the actor portraying him in the film, is forced to sell his own back issues to get out of debt. The meta implication is that Millar, and comics, are so cool that even the badass hero, or ultra popular movie star, love them, that deep down all the cool people are really just fanboys.

So, the entire book plays as this strange mirror version of Millar's own fame and increasing media profile. He's got the MySpace friends now, he's hanging out with celebrities, he's been taken out of his regular life and become something more.

One thing I haven't really seen mentioned in conjunction with the book is how structurally similar it is to Wanted. Both books chronicle the story of a loser who gets pulled out of his ordinary life into a world of excitement and adventure. That's a pretty basic story structure, but there's a lot of resonances, particularly the self hatred the protagonist feels. Is Millar writing about this because it's how he feels about himself? Or, is it a calculated way to appeal to the fanboys who comprise his target demo?

Either way, the book itself is always entertaining, if nowhere near as revolutionary or groundbreaking as Millar might think it is. I will give a big commendation to John Romita Jr., who told the story in a really compelling, visual way. I always had to read both the images and the text to get all the information, and that's unfortunately a rarity in today's comics. On the whole, it's a satisfying read, but perhaps a bit too indebted to the 80s style deconstruction of superheroes and offers very little in the way of new insight into the genre.


suncore598 said...

I've seen the comic on the stands. I never got interested in reading it. I found it a bit too bloody and violent. Concept is interesting but nothing to grab my attention unlike Preacher.
Any news of progress on Third Age Volume Two? Did you get to read the revised first season outline I sent you?

Patrick said...

Yeah, there's some interesting stuff about it, but it's by no means a must read, and there certainly is an excess of blood and violence.

Third Age Volume Two is still in the editing stage mostly, with a few more shoot days remaining. I'm hoping to get it out at the end of summer, but working on the Grant doc has zapped up a lot of my editing time, so it's tricky to get it in there. But, it'll definitely be out by the end of the year.

And I got the revised outline, but haven't had a chance to check it out yet.